Wednesday, February 01, 2023

I honestly understand why members of the Rabbinical Council of America were compelled to make another public statement on the matter of female clergy. Although I may not have done the same, I definitely get it. However, I feel compelled to write to you about one bothersome aspect of the most recent resolution.

I personally lack the knowledge, erudition or authority to discuss the validity of semicha for females. However, I have been a Jewish educator for a number of years and your resolution directly addresses the world of chinuch. As the resolution states:

Therefore, the Rabbinical Council of America... resolves to educate and inform our community that RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not...allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a teacher of Limudei Kodesh in an Orthodox institution.

This passage does not directly bar women with semicha from teaching in Orthodox institutions, but has that effect; would a woman with ordination apply for a job that requires delegitimizing something she worked so hard for?

As an experienced Jewish educator, please permit me to voice an opinion about female rabbis teaching in Orthodox institutions.

A career in Jewish education is not considered the most prestigious or realistic path for today’s Orthodox professionals, both male and female. As a result, many talented individuals avoid the world of chinuch, leaving a vacuum often filled by those less fitting for the job. These circumstances alone should encourage Orthodox institutions to expand their pool of potential hires. This alone should discourage excluding candidates due to title or training. However, I’d like to add another consideration.

Encountering the myriad ways my students relate to religion has fostered within me a greater appreciation for religious flexibility. Our Torah is a Torat Chayim, resonating differently within each individual Jew. To paraphrase the Gemara in Masechet Berachot, our students are as disparate in psyche as in looks. Without a sense of adaptability, this discrepancy could result in the loss of a Torah lifestyle for many. As such, there exist greater concerns for chinuch than defending the parameters of Orthodoxy (itself a non-halachic construct) and reinforcing the policies of a specific rabbinic organization.

But where to draw the line? The ultimate decision should belong to school leaders. Every institution has a unique set of stakeholders, and what is best for one group may not be best for another. Schools should always be concerned with potential candidates communicating certain core values to students. However, it should be left to each institution to ensure its hashkafot aren’t being compromised. If a particular Orthodox institution feels compelled to be maximally cautious with their values, let them be clear about what those values are with all potential candidates. Let each school determine its own comfort with hiring a maharat, yoetzet or female with another title. This is the place for significant influence from local rabbanim, locally, not in setting educational policies for Jews across the country. (Just to reiterate, my qualm here is with the educational policy, not with the RCA discouraging female ordination.)

Barring RCA members from hiring females with ordination will not immediately hurt the world of Jewish education. But I do think it presents a message that is a bit out of touch. Our schools are fine with keeping to Orthodox tradition and most students are aware of what is “Orthodox” and what is not. Our students need dedicated teachers who love what they do above all. Closing the door to those who do not fit the classic definition of Orthodox sends the wrong message. While there must be a distinction between what is ideal and what is practical—what is l’chatchila and what is b’dieved—chinuch is not the place for that distinction. I would think that mechanchim (educators) and practicing rabbanim, confronted by the living nature of the Torah on a constant basis, would appreciate this idea. I wonder what percentage of those voting in favor of the resolution were professionals with semicha, as opposed to teachers and rabbis.

If I had any influence, I would urge the RCA to be transparent about the demographics of who voted in favor of the current resolution. Not every member of the RCA should have their opinions revered equally. For the sake of honesty, you owe it to the Orthodox community (yes, I do believe you owe it) to be clear here. Second, I would urge the RCA to reconsider the clause in the resolution that sends a message to the Orthodox community about priorities in chinuch. I respect the work that each of you do on behalf of klal Yisrael, and please take this letter as a respectful disagreement.

Yair Daar is a Bergenfield resident who teaches Gemara and Tanach at SAR High School. He can be reached at [email protected] Comments can also be left at chinuchadventures.blogspot.com.

By Yair Daar

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